"Workbench Songs" is only the 11th album in Clark's canon, not a tremendous output considering his career as a writer and performer stretches back to 1971. Clark was born in the West Texas town of Monahans in 1941. As a writer who draws deeply from his own experiences, a great many of Clark's most enduring songs have sprung from his deeply ingrained Texas upbringing. "Desperados Waiting for a Train," for instance, was inspired by an oil well rigger, who was a resident in the hotel run by Clark's grandmother when he was a child.
Clark's grandmother proved to be a huge influence on his life. His father was a career Army man, and his mother worked outside the home, leaving Clark to be raised primarily by his grandmother. He learned to play guitar, and the first songs he learned were the Spanish songs that dominated his West Texas environment.
In his mid-20s, Clark moved to Houston and began plying his trade on the folk circuit there. By providence, Clark met, befriended and performed with a number of legends in the making upon his arrival in Houston, including Van Zandt, iconic bluesmen Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb. Under the tutelage of this astonishing triad of influence, Clark began creating his own folk/blues hybrid under the country music umbrella and always with the intention of being both a writer and a performer.
"I love playing and singing," says Clark. "I got no reason to go play unless I've got songs I've written, and I got no reason to write songs unless I'm gonna go play them for the folks. It's a symbiotic relationship between the two, and they feed off one another. That's just what I like to do. I can't imagine just sitting here writing songs without doing them."
After a few years on the Houston scene, Clark decided to try his luck on the west coast, moving to San Francisco in 1968. There he met and married his wife of nearly 40 years, songwriter/painter Susanna Clark.
A subsequent move to Los Angeles resulted in a job with the Dopera Brothers where he learned the craft of making Dobros, but he quickly tired of the pace of Southern California, a weariness he expressed in one his most timeless compositions, "L.A. Freeway."
In 1971, Clark and his wife made the momentous decision to move to Nashville, where they have remained to this day. Clark's songs quickly garnered the attention of the city's publishing companies and eventually scored him a staff position and recording contract with RCA. By the time "Old No. 1" came out in 1975, Jerry Jeff Walker had already turned "L.A. Freeway" into a minor hit, and Clark's reputation as a songwriter with unlimited potential was beginning to grow.
Oddly enough, Clark's performing career has always been somewhat spotty, perhaps because of his tendency to label hop and his labels' inability to market him to the proper audience. His two RCA albums were followed by a trio for Warner Brothers, which resulted in a handful of singles charting in the Top 100.
After 1983's "Better Days" for Warners, Clark wouldn't record another album until signing with Sugar Hill for 1988's "Old Friends."
In the meantime, Clark focused on songwriting and became one of the hottest go-to guys in Nashville. In 1982, Bobby Bare took "New Cut Road" into the Top 20 and Ricky Skaggs went all the way to number 1 with "Heartbroke," which pushed Clark's name to the top of the list among performers looking for songs to record.
In short order, Clark had rung up chart hits for Johnny Cash, Vince Gill, George Strait, Steve Wariner, John Conlee, Asleep at the Wheel and The Highwaymen.
In 1989, Clark collaborated with longtime protˇgˇ Rodney Crowell on "She's Crazy for Leavin'" and signed with Asylum Records shortly thereafter. He released a pair of highly acclaimed albums for the label - 1992's "Boats to Build" and 1995's exquisite "Dublin Blues" - before re-signing with Sugar Hill for his 1997 live album "Keepers," and his last two studio albums for the label, 1999's "Cold Dog Soup" and 2002's "The Dark."
After the end of his commitment to Sugar Hill and yet another three year hiatus, Clark began working on "Workbench Songs" and putting out feelers to assess label interest. Considering their proximity to one another in Nashville, the deal with Dualtone seemed like a match made in heaven.
"It just worked out that way; these guys are right here, and they let me do what I wanted to do," says Clark. "I like them. They're bright guys."
Although Clark's writing process didn't change much for the songs on "Workbench Songs," he altered his preparation procedure before going into the studio, rehearsing the new songs at length ahead of recording. In addition, nearly the entire album was recorded live in the studio, with only minimal tweaking taking place after the fact. All of this streamlined the recording process to a huge degree.
"Well, I think it went smoother, in that I really tried to know the songs before I went in the studio," says Clark. "All the vocals are live. We didn't go in there and fix vocals. It had to be a whole performance. Right there, that cuts your time in half from the way most people make records. And we played two or three people at the same time, maybe overdubbing one or two things. And there you go."